The Journey series
This week’s Mustard Seed continues with my European wanderings. Since we bought a van in England, an island, the next leg of our journey involved a ferry crossing to continental Europe. British Columbia has a wealth of traditional ferries, so that made the hovercraft our obvious choice.
1978 was pre-GPS so we navigated via an atlas of Europe my friend Greg gave me as a bon voyage gift. There are no search or zoom feature in paper atlases so we supplemented the maps with brochures gleaned from tourism kiosks — always quite local and never highly detailed. Once headed in our chosen general direction we followed highway signs.
Since Paris, obligatory for our grand European tour, lay to our west on an east-bound journey, it became our next destination. Yves and Solange, who we met on the Lermontov, lived in Paris. We drove well into the city and picked a random exit. My sister noticed that all the bus shelters had maps so we parked by the next stop to peruse the map. Purely by God’s grace, we were one block away from Yves and Solange's apartment.
They lived in a five story building. The ground floor had a foyer and two suites. Each other floor had four suites. We climbed the steep and narrow stairway all the way to the top floor to announce ourselves. Yves apologized that he and Solange were leaving the next day for a little holiday of their own and needed to prepare. He did, however, invite us for breakfast and a shower the next morning.
Their building predated indoor plumbing and one shared washroom per floor had been jammed into the end of the corridor during a renovation decades earlier. Although probably a luxury at the time, these washrooms were not like the ones we’re accustomed to in North America. They consist of a squat toilet (two lumps to stand on and a hole to aim for), a hose leading from the wall, and a showerhead over the toilet; efficient use of a very limited space. A waste bin sat in the corner for tissue. We were warned that hosing tissue down the toilet would certainly clog the drain. To shower, one stood in the toilet and turned on the almost-warm water overhead.
Upon finishing our breakfast and lavabo, we bid adieu to our friends and headed for the Eiffel tower. We found several vans parked beneath the tower. We pulled ours in beside the others. This was our campsite for the duration of our stay in Paris. We ventured out on foot in different directions each day. By the third day we were finding our sponge-baths somewhat inadequate. I noticed an icon of a person swimming labelled piscine publique on our tour map. After that, public swimming pools became a standard destination in each city we visited.
With so many sights to see, we remained in Paris for a full week. We returned to our van planning to get a good sleep and an early start. The side door wide open. Our passports were gone. This was the first time my sister asked, “What are we going to do now?”
I came up with a very practical answer. “Sleep.” It was late. Our situation wouldn’t be any worse in the morning and our minds would be fresher. Also, the Canadian embassy would be open.
We made our way to the embassy and, after two hours in line, applied for an emergency passport. The clerk gave us a number to phone in a week to check on progress. We saw many sights we would otherwise have missed and my sister enjoyed our daily visits to the piscine publique. On the fifth morning I caved to her daily demands to phone the embassy despite it not being a week. The passports had just arrived; we could pick them up after three o’clock. I wanted to stay one more night and leave the next morning but my sister insisted we leave immediately.
Next week: “Sleep” again.
This week’s Mustard Seed sets the scene for finding wealth in adversity. Robert Burns wrote, The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley. When my sister and I set out for Europe in the late 70’s, our trip proved gang aft a-gley is sometimes superior to best laid schemes.
Through what little research I did, I found we could cross the Atlantic on a Russian passenger freighter; buy a camper van outside the Australian embassy in London; tour around Europe heading in the general direction of Iran to visit our uncle David, who happened to be working there; and tour some more on the way back to London where we would resell our van to pay our fare home.
I booked passage on the MV Mikhail Lermontov solely based on sailing date. We bought sturdy backpacks and stitched Canadian flags on them, bought travellers’ cheques, and obtained an overseas driver’s license from the Automobile Association. Scheme complete!
When time arrived, we left for New York. Three days in, we decided that a six-day, cross-continent bus trip during the heat of August, with periodic short breaks at roadside diners, falls outside the best laid scheme category. We arrived in New York definitely more eager to board our ship and find the shower than to see any sights.
Our ocean voyage was very enjoyable. Many of the passengers were students on their way to study abroad. We populated our itinerary with places to visit our new-found friends.
We stayed a few days in a suburb of London with Neil and his parents. We learned houses there have names rather than numbers. Their house was Mansard Cottage, Loudwater Lane, Rickmansworth, England. We went into London and found the streets outside the Australian embassy were indeed a virtual flea market for campers. We found one we could afford, definitely not a luxury model. We said our farewells to Neil’s parents and headed for Exeter where Neil would study. He and some classmates rented rooms in an old house. It had been converted into a duplex, 1-Ware’s Cottage and 2-Ware’s Cottage. Someone resurrected the old farmhouse at the end of the street and rechristened it No-Ware’s Cottage.
From Exeter, we headed across the Firth of Forth up to St Andrews, Scotland where we celebrated the start of the school year with friends from the Lermontov. Each year students from the university process through town and burn an effigy. One of our friends received the honour of carrying the scarecrow but she was so short few could see her. To sate the complainers I hoisted her onto my shoulders and carried her as she carried the effigy. The front page of the next morning’s paper bore a picture of the effigy, her, and me. I was a minor celebrity in town. Our friends settled in to university life. It was time for us to head on.
Nothing since disembarking in Southampton had been pre-planned; none could have been; yet all was going well. Next stop Paris!
Next week: Gang aft a-gley begins.
This week’s Mustard Seed carries on with the wealth of experience I gained from my late 1970`s European tour. I firmly believe our teens, our countries, and our society would be better served if the senior year of high school was spent abroad.
Short, packaged tours don`t expose people quite the same way. Vacationers tend to bring their own culture along with them. In LeHavre, France I got stuck behind two rather slow obvious tourists. I overheard one remark to her companion, “Aren't these children clever. They all speak foreign languages.” They were, of course, speaking French.
In Athens, a woman dressed in black high-heeled shoes, a polyester dress with large purple polka dots, and a wide-brimmed straw hat bound with a navy ribbon waddled along ahead of me down the stone path leading from the Acropolis. I overheard her Brooklyn accent declare, “I don’t like it here. Everything is broken. All you see is ruins, ruins, ruins.”
I myself, despite travelling away from home for several days, didn’t appreciate how far away I was until crossing the Firth of Forth as I drove to St Andrews, Scotland. This is that place in the atlas! It was no longer just an amusing name on a map. And I was there.
In Germany I gained an appreciation of history. We happened upon a mill house on the 500th anniversary of the date etched into the stone dedication plaque above its door. This place is old! Nothing I`d encountered in North America put me in such awe of time. Columbus hadn`t even set sail for America when that building was erected.
I experienced the divine and mystical in cathedrals I visited throughout Europe. I was brought up attending one of the oldest and grandest churches in Vancouver but I suppose there hadn’t yet been enough prayers prayed there to impart the holiness I sensed in those grand structures. There I sensed an inexplicable serenity and comfort.
We kept heading east. A few weeks after arriving in Iran my sister’s appetite for adventure wore thin, as did our wallets. She travelled home with what money we had left and I found a job teaching English to replenish my pockets.
I rented a house with four fellow expat teachers. Two of my room mates preferred drinking beer and two preferred reading. I was alone in wanting to meet the locals. I learned enough Farsi to greet people, thank them, and shop for groceries. On weekends I ventured in different directions as far as time allowed.
One weekend I stumbled across a small village where each family lived in a one-roomed house built of mud bricks. Each also had half an acre to grow rice. They all greeted me with great enthusiasm. The men guided me to the home of a man who also owned two bee hives. Each hive produced five kilograms of honey twice a year. This made his family wealthy! The owner showed me his bees. He smoked the hive and very gently moved the bees about, petting them and holding them out for me to observe more closely. He retrieved a frame of honey and broke off a small piece for me to try. Other men showed up bearing trays of different foods. We sat, ate and drank tea. They smiled and chatted. Everyone was very happy. In that village I experienced simplicity.
Sending our teens to such places for a year would serve them better than buying them the latest smartphone or laptop. No amount of study with the best of technology can match experience. Living without the amenities, conveniences, and comfort of home would help them appreciate, respect, and live better with them. I know our trip made my sister and me better people.
Next week: More Wealth.
This week’s Mustard Seed revisits the awe of my transatlantic voyage. There is great value in knowing just how insignificant each of us is, indeed, all of us are.
Upon return from my California college experience I found a job as a commercial SCUBA diver during the aptly-referred Wild West period of the profession. There weren’t any regulations and anyone with a C-card and enough bravado could try their hand. It was a very glamourous position — off hours. In truth, it’s just a more demanding, difficult, and dangerous version of equivalent dry land work.
The hard work kept me in top physical form and the pay was good. I got a lot of attention at the local pub with my tight fitting Fraser Burrard Diving T-shirt.
Much of our work was scheduled but emergency maintenance and salvage job occurred frequently. We took turns being on-call which meant carrying a pager, keeping our gear in our van, and not drinking. If something broke or something sank we needed to respond immediately.
Every long weekend, instead of being three days to enjoy, meant two twelve-hour shifts out of town performing maintenance in the toxic environment under a pulp mill. We’d load our equipment and travel on Friday, work Saturday and Sunday, and return exhausted on Monday.
During that time my younger sister planned a trip to Europe with a friend. Circumstances changed that friend’s mind but my sister decided to press on alone. I wasn’t comfortable with my fresh-out-of-high-school sister travelling alone in Europe.
In reasonably quick succession I had two equipment failures. They accentuated the danger of my work and caused me to reflect. How long would I like being a commercial diver? Perhaps there was good reason most of my fellow divers were young and single. I enjoyed the high salary and the esteem but not so much the job itself. I decided to quit before I got too comfortable to ever leave. I arranged to accompany my sister to Europe. We set out for New York by bus and from there to England by a Russian passenger freighter.
Four days at sea, nothing to see in any direct but ocean and sky, I felt small. That night I walked the decks and contemplated. I looked up at the myriad stars, each one so much larger than Earth; in turn, much larger than the ocean we’d been lost in for days.
Next week: More Wealth.
I look up at your heavens, shaped by your fingers, at the moon and the stars you set firm. What are human beings that you spare a thought for them, or the child of Adam that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, you have crowned him with glory and beauty.
This week’s Mustard Seed revisits the existential angst of my late teens. My father left when I was five years old. I often felt he would have been able to answer some of my deeper questions had he been around. After graduating from high school I decided I needed to know him so I went to visit him in California.
During my two week stay he suggested I attended college there and invited me to stay with him and his wife. Wanting to know him better, I accepted. I arrived in Fremont the following July. Within a few weeks my father accepted a new job. He and his wife moved to New Jersey late that August.
Since I was already enrolled at Ohlone College I stayed. I studied and met new friends. All went well enough at first but during the Christmas break I found myself all alone. I had no family within a thousand miles and my friends were all busy with their families.
I began to wonder why I was, why anything is. I sought the answer in religions, sciences, and philosophies. The one common thread I found was, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” Everywhere — axiom of equality, second law of thermodynamics, stoichiometry, karma, an eye for an eye — even the Hells Angels say, “What goes around comes around.” I decided since so many others figured it was true I would accept it also. I worked it backwards to the first action. What caused that? I did the same with conservation of matter and energy. Where did it come from in the first place? Has everything always been there?
I thought about time. It’s finite. No matter what size blocks it's cut into, there must be a beginning for there to be a now, something to stack all those blocks on to get to the present. If there’s a beginning, there must be something greater than all time, space, matter, and energy that caused it to be.
I only found two propositions, the big bang or God. I reasoned that the big bang was an event not a cause. That left only God.
I still didn’t have any family or friends with me, but I now knew I had God. He made up for all that was missing.
Next week: More Wealth.